Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Theories and Narratives: Pacific Women in Tertiary Eucation and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identities in Aotearoa New Zealand

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Version 1 2021-11-03, 08:04
posted on 2023-03-14, 22:25 authored by Mara, Diane Lysette

This thesis explores the possible influence of tertiary education on ethnic identity using a social constructionist approach developed by the sociologists Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartmann. Cornell and Hartmann describe six key sites within which ethnic identity is constructed. They view ethnic identity construction as an ongoing dynamic between the cultural identities which group members bring with them, the processes of assignment made by others within the sites, and how this interplay often promotes the assertion of newly created or revived identities. Constructions sites are situations where different cultural groups interact and where they may be subject to laws, regulations and prevailing beliefs. Although Cornell and Hartmann discuss various social institutions as construction sites they do not specifically refer to educational institutions. This study builds on their approach by examining social interactions within tertiary education from the perspectives of individual Pacific women and investigates whether this institution is a site for ethnic identity formation and change. If so, what implications does this have for Pacific students and the institutions in which they are studying? The sample consisted of twenty Pacific women graduates belonging to most of the Pacific populations in Aotearoa New Zealand. Using a semi-structured interview, information was collected about their socialization in family and church and then about their experience of tertiary education and their own responses to this. When their narratives were analysed it could be seen that the women defined themselves in both primordialist and circumstantialist terms. The narratives also provided illustrations of their assignment by “others” in the form of negative stereotyping and lower expectations held by lecturers of Pacific students. The women felt that within tertiary education institutions they were treated differently from students from other ethnic groups. The consequence was increased awareness of their cultural difference and they asserted their ethnic identities in a range of ways, including finding other Pacific students to study with, or by withdrawal behaviour in class. Such treatment, together with the effects of targeted provisions at tertiary institutions, acted to strengthen the ethnic boundaries between Pacific students and others. Implications for tertiary education institutions include the desirability of consulting Pacific students about the effects of support provided on the basis of cultural identification and the need to discover whether special provisions which make Pacific students more visible leads to their academic success or encourages them to drop out.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Education Studies


McDonald, Geraldine; Pearson, David